Poland best in attack and defense at NATO Chess Championships

by Carl Portman
9/6/2016 – The NATO Chess Championship is the greatest military chess tournament in the World. It is hosted by a different NATO country every year and for 2016 it was the turn of the United Kingdom. A challenging task, and the chess was played out at the Defence Academy in Shrivenham from the 22-26 August. Poland won the team event, FM Finn Pedersen was Individual Winner. Carl Portman reports.

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The 2016 NATO Chess Championships

NATO countries declare war on each other! Well if that really was a headline around the world we would all be in serious trouble. Actually in a way the headline is true, but thankfully there are no tanks, no aircraft or cluster bombs and no guns to be seen anywhere. Yet do not relax because there are some potentially dangerous weapons in the form of bishops, rooks, kings, queens and more to do battle for their respective nations.

NATO Chess Championships 2016. The traditional group photograph on a warm sunny evening.

 The tournament is both a team and an individual event, competed for by the Armed Forces and Ministry of Defence personnel of NATO member Nations. It matters!

This year was the 27th event and included 98 competitors from 16 nations, as well as an actual NATO team and a Veterans team. The tournament is run on a seven round Swiss system over five days. Some players brought along their partners and various day trips were enjoyed whilst the chess was underway. These included the ancient stones at Stonehenge, the Spa City of Bath and the historic town of Windsor. NATO Championships are not just about chess, but culture too.

The tournament is of a very high standard; last year it was won by the Estonian Grandmaster Aleksandr Volodin who was not in the UK to defend his title, Germany were defending the team title for the 22nd time.  However, the event is as much about strengthening bonds and partnerships between friends and allies as it is about chess.

At the Opening Ceremony on the Monday morning the teams were photographed and several speakers were invited including Mr. Mike Truran OBE, Chief Executive of the English Chess Federation, and Vice Admiral Duncan Potts CB, the Director General of Joint Forces Development and The Defence Academy who eloquently opened the event. I

The Defence Academy is responsible for post-graduate education and the majority of command, staff, leadership, defence management, acquisition and technology training for members of the UK Armed Forces and MOD Civil Servants. It is therefore a very important venue!

It was therefore natural to hold the event in an Academy, a significant place of learning since chess is so good for the development of decision making and responsibility for those decisions. This is as relevant on a real battlefield as it is on a chessboard. Chess teaches how to think and indeed how not to think!

If you want to find out more about the Academy please visit the public website at www.da.mod.uk

GM Ray Keene OBE speaking at the dinner

The Times Chess Correspondent and well-known Grandmaster Raymond Keene OBE was one of the VIP’s as he has long supported Forces Chess, something that few people appreciate. He made the first symbolic move on board one as the first round began. He also gave a witty speech at the closing banquet in English, German and French!

Former English Chess Federation Chief Executive Phil Ehr was also invited and enjoyed the chess. He gave a very thought provoking speech at the Official Dinner later in the week. 

The arbiters. Luc Cornet and Kevin Thurlow did their job efficiently and professionally and were always approachable – very important to the players.

From a British perspective the team were far from favourites to win. That honour usually goes to Germany but the Brits wanted to give a good fight on home territory. The British representatives had qualified from the Combined Services Chess Championship, held every year in the late springtime. There would be 9 players in all for the Brits, this included UK, NATO and Veterans representatives.

I have been lucky to represent the United Kingdom myself, in France (Brest) in 2012 and I know what an honour it is to play for your country. There is a different feeling, an extra pressure, but a good one. These are the special memories that players take away from a   tournament that always has a spirit of unity and friendship in a world that often seems to want to create borders and tear itself apart. With chess, more things unite countries than divide them, for sure!

Just before round one – the tension, hopes and fears are about to become a reality.

Poland led for five of the seven rounds whilst Germany held top spot twice. The USA were in the top three from rounds two to four.

In the end the final standings showed that Poland were the winners and NATO Champions, closely followed by Germany and then Denmark. The United Kingdom team finished eighth out of nineteen which was a great effort by the lads.

At the closing banquet I was honoured to sit next to the Polish team captain, Lt Col Sławomir Kędzierski. He commented that of course he was very happy to win but that there had been a great deal of preparation for the event. The gold medals were the net result of hard work. Chess was studied and played almost every day by the young team and indeed this included a fitness regime. One might anyway expect this of Military forces but it was a reminder that being physically fit for hours of chess can be an asset too. Fit body and fit mind = gold medal!

I should note that teams usually consist of around six players plus a captain and official but Luxembourg was represented by only one person! Well done to Steve Vael for carrying the flag of his nation. He was everyone’s favourite underdog and we hope to see him with several more of his compatriots in Hungary 2017.

The final team standings

I have told you about the teams but who was the Individual winner you might ask? That accolade is awarded to FM Finn Pederson of Denmark with the excellent score of 6½ / 7.

In the final round he beat FM Fabrice Wantiez from Belgium as black in an exchange Caro Kann. This is something that is not so easy to do as black for anyone.

This is the critical moment that decided the game. Here with white to play, the engines (not me!) give 44. Kh4 as the only best move and evaluates it as 0:00 after that. The king needs to go to the right. Instead, Wantiez played his king to the left with 44. Kf3?! And this in fact gives black a significant advantage after 44…Kd7!

Here is the full game for you to enjoy.


The runner up was the very popular German, FM Mark Helbig with 6/7. Third place was taken by Poland’s Rafal Przedmojski coming ahead of two other Fide Masters. (I told you the tournament was strong!)

Individual gold medal winner – FM Finn Pederson at his workplace

There was an informal but hotly contested blitz tournament on the Friday afternoon where FM Pederson again took first place giving him a memorable double. The local photographer was simply amazed to see that chess could actually be played at this speed and he had to admit that the game seemed like fun!

Friday evening arrived all too soon and we turned to the closing banquet and medal ceremony which saw co-organiser Francis Pearce shine in terms of placing the right people together to get the best out of the evening. The finest Military uniforms and smart civilian suits were the order of the day and everyone enjoyed a fine feast and good wine. We toasted our Queen and then gave a toast to the Heads of State of all the countries present. There was a genuine feeling of unity. What with Brexit and all the political fallout across the European Union it was joyous to see that NATO still has substance and meaning. Our American and Canadian friends were a reminder that we have special relationships far beyond a single continent.  

The victorious Poland team with special guest, ECF Chief Executive Mike Truran (second left)

It was the overwhelming opinion of players and support staff that this was a first class event with excellent food, accommodation, and playing conditions. Above all though, it is the people that made it what it was. Truly it was gens uma sumus.

Whilst the organising team were rightly applauded I have particular praise for the gentlemen (Jake, Steve and Bijay) who were trying to make sense of the annotations on the scoresheets. Trying to make sense of some of the handwriting is a challenge, whilst working in multiple languages. It does not help when players forget to write all of the moves down either. All this activity occurred day after day in a very hot and humid room. Hats off to the boys then.

A typical scoresheet. Confused?

Ron Townend, Dave Ross and Bijay drove many hundreds of miles over the week sorting out the logistics and ferrying teams to and from the airport and to the day trips. Their sacrifices were much appreciated by the players and fellow organisers.

As with the Olympic games, the torch passes on to the next country and the next event. The ‘torch’ in this case is the beautiful Viking ship ‘The Spirit of Denmark’ since the tournament was conceived in that country. The vessel was introduced in memory of Ken Moore who started this event in 1978.

The prize for best team is a sculpture of King Canute. There was not so much of holding back the waves but a feeling that a parting of the ways was imminent, and it was quite sad.

The Spirit of Denmark passes from the UK (left) to Hungary for the 2017 competition.

We were blessed with many excellent prizes at this event, kindly donated by Chessbase, New in Chess (the latest informative NIC Yearbooks) and Chess and Bridge of London who ensured that every player had a copy of their quality monthly magazine. Chessbase ensured that every participant received a three-month Premium membership free and they also donated DVD’s including Komodo and Fritz 15. The sponsors, Thales and antycip Simulation provided part sponsorship for the event, and credit is given to both companies for investing in chess.  Thales also sponsor Wells junior chess club close to one of their UK offices in Somerset so this is wonderful news.

Millstonemills came for a day to show their exquisite chess wares. It is quite possible to entertain guests with some fine salt and pepper grinders. Take a look here: http://www.millstonemills.com/

The Association procured a lovely ches set and board which they presented to the Station Commander for the Defence Academy Officer’s Mess. Let’s hope it is well used. Thanks to Regency Chess for finding a suitable set.                                     http://www.regencychess.co.uk/

Sincere thanks must be given to Director General Joint Forces Development and Defence Academy, and The Station Commander Wing Cdr Arnold for allowing the CSCA to host this prestigious event. Thanks also to everyone involved, too many to mention but you know who you are.

The UK Combined Services Chess Association (CSCA) has approximately 150 members. It is self-funded and has been in existence for over 15 years as a Combined Association and over fifty years as Single Service Associations before that.

The Chairman is Lieutenant Commander David C Ross, Royal Navy. My parting remarks must especially mention him, though he never likes to take any credit. Without Dave at the helm this event would never have happened, at least not in the remarkable way that it did. I salute his indefatigable ‘can do’ attitude, his energy and his sheer creativeness and persistence in bringing the parts together to make a memorable week for so many people. Few can match his organisational capabilities.

I am delighted to report that chess once again won the day, just as it always has.

CSCA Website address: http://serviceschess.wixsite.com/home

NATO Website:  http://www.natochess.com/

All photographs: Danny O’Byrne and Carl Portman

Carl is retired from the Civil Service and is now a co-director of his own consultancy with his wife. He loves natural history – particularly arachnology and he has written two books on his rainforest experiences. However, his first love is chess. Whilst he describes himself very much the amateur player, he has played chess at school, club, county and indeed International level. His proudest moments came representing the UK in France, Hungary and America in the NATO Chess Championships, being Captain at the last two. He is author of the book ‘Chess Behind Bars’ and he works with chess in prisons for the English Chess Federation and is also a chess editor, columnist, coach, organiser and player. His achieved his dream when playing his childhood hero Anatoly Karpov in a simultaneous exhibition in Chartres, France in 2019. He lost – but was the last to finish in a good fight. His life motto is ‘Don’t complain about the dark, light a few candles’.


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